Understanding Our Earth, Part I
Thomas Jefferson wrote that “civilization itself rests upon the soil.” All people in all cultures trace their origins and their existence to the use of soil to grow food, shelter, clothing and other resources. Apart from the obvious importance of mining, let’s focus on the top few inches of soil. Without food, mining is of little consequence.
Soil is much more than just “dirt”. Soil is a mixture of organic and inorganic, air and water. The 3 major inorganic (mineral) components of soil are sand, silt, and clay. The organic components are organic wastes, living organisms, and the decomposing remains of those living in and above the soil. Nature wastes nothing.
WHAT’S UNDER OUR FEET?
Soil is actually more alive than dead. Cryptobiotic Soil (meaning “hidden life”) refers to the web of microorganisms (bacteria, fungi, protozoa, green algae, lichens and other invertebrates) plus the sticky sheath of nitrogen fixing cyanobacteria that form an integrating crust on the surface of soils all over the world. This sticky sheath binds with soil particles and helps hold the soil together preventing erosion. The crusty soil slows runoff of rainfall, increasing soil moisture and thus stabilizing the soil. This increase in soil moisture and stabilization affects the abundance, diversity, and health of plants growing in the soil.
Unfortunately, humans have impacted this fragile “hidden life” through crushing by people, off road vehicles, and cattle. This damaged crust produces less nitrogen and carbon, resulting in soil more susceptible to erosion and less supportive to plant and animal life that depend on it.
HOW MUCH SOIL IS THERE?
Picture if you will the earth as an apple with the skin of the apple hugging and protecting its surface.
This final small fragment competes with all other needs - housing, cities, schools, hospitals, shopping centers, land fills, etc., etc. And, sometimes, it doesn't win.
WHAT’S BLOWIN’ IN THE WIND?
One of the biggest problems is soil erosion. While erosion is a natural process, human activities speed up the process though poor farming practices, overgrazing of public lands, deforestation, excessive offroad activities, and urban sprawl pushing agriculture into less desirable land that erodes easier.
According to a United Nations Environmental Program survey, topsoil is eroding faster than it forms on about one-third of the earth’s cropland. Topsoil in the US is eroding about 16 times faster than it can form. During the “dust bowl” days of the 1930’s in the US, the entire eastern US was blanketed by topsoil blown off the Great Plains some 1500 miles away. In 1937, US President Franklin D. Roosevelt sent a letter to the governors of the states in which he said, “The nation that destroys its soil, destroys itself.” Each year we must feed about 90 million more people on the planet with 24 billion metric tons less topsoil.
As agricultural expert, R. Neil Sampson wrote, “We stand only six inches from desolation, for that is the thickness of the topsoil layer upon which the entire life of the planet depends”.
Our lives and the lives of most other organisms depend on soil. Since we are built from the molecules up by the materials our mothers ate while carrying us (and what we eat) and all those nutrients came from plants (or animals that ate plants) that extracted those nutrients from the soil, it is not much of a stretch to say that we come from the soil. Our soils are the source for the elements that make us. So the next time you look down at the “dirt” under your feet, think about the future plants, animals, and humans waiting to materialize. We are all interconnected.
Maybe the Earth really is our Mother.